*This review contains some spoilers. If you haven’t watched Parasite and want to, here’s the link.*
There are no villains in Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite.
Nor are there heroes.
It’s one of those movies that doesn’t unfold in black and white, but in shades of gray.
Parasite is also a modern fairytale, a fable, if you will. As such, it requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Could the events that unfold during the film happen in real life? Most likely not. Moreover, whether or not they could, they probably wouldn’t. Because, paradoxically enough, the characters who make up the impoverished Kim family are the sort of people who, in the real world, probably wouldn’t be impoverished for long. They’re pretty hard-working. Besides that, they’re cunning and enterprising — and ruthless. They’re the type of people found in criminal underworlds, but also in car sales and courtrooms.
Very brief plot summary: The impoverished Kim family takes over the roles of household staff for the wealthy Park family. The son, Ki-woo “Kevin,” becomes the English tutor for the Park daughter, Da-hye. Ki-jung “Jessica,” the daughter in the Kim family, becomes the art tutor and therapist for the Park son, Da-song. The Kim father, Ki-taek, becomes the driver from Mr. Park. And the Kim mother, Chung-sook, becomes the housekeeper, supplanting the long-time employee Moon-gwang. As much as the Kim family comes to believe they can have what the Park family has, they never will — and there’s a secret lurking in a hidden bunker beneath the Park house.
My point here is to enumerate to you the ways in which Parasite is a rare movie and one worth watching. As I said up top, this review contains minor spoilers. So if you want to watch first and read later, get that movie rolling now. Otherwise, here are three ways in which Parasite is not your average film.
1. Parasite lives up to the hype.
Parasite was one of the most hyped-up films of 2019, even before it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. I was a tiny bit reticent to watch it, since sometimes movies simply fail to live up to the hype, or are hyped for reasons that have to do with casting and construction, not with plot and substance.
For example, it’s wonderful that Crazy Rich Asians has an all-Asian cast, but in the end it’s a cut-and-dry rom-com. Ditto to Black Panther — I love that this movie with features so many Black actors and actresses, but it’s a superhero movie, pretty similar to other superhero movies. And I don’t say this to diminish the initial choice of what story to tell, which is perhaps the most important aspect of these pioneering films, nor do I mean to diminish their casting — and I think that they open the door for more great work to come. But, in a colorblind world, they wouldn’t necessarily be remembered as great films from a plot standpoint.
Just as Jordan Peele’s Get Out is different, Parasite is different, too. Its plot is intricate, even threatens to fall of the rails at times, threatens to take one twist too far. And it’s a movie that has something to say about the world. It’s one of the best movies I’ve watched in a long time, and I’m guessing that it’ll be remembered for a number of reasons — not only because it was the first non-English-language film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, but also for its story and its messages as Korean society, and Western society, strides into a late-stage capitalist future.
2. Parasite lets you figure it out… then leaves you guessing again.
For a couple minutes near the start of the film, I thought that Parasite would chronicle the conflict between two friends, the poor Ki-woo and the wealthy Min-hyuk, who early on recommends that Ki-woo tutor Da-hye, the daughter of the wealthy Park family with whom Min-hyuk has fallen in love.
Then, I was sure that Parasite would be a simple but entertaining film about how a poor family weaves itself, like a parasitic vine, into the life of a rich family. The two families, it turns out, are equally parasitic.
Near the end, I thought that the movie would end with a bloody massacre, testament to domestic terrorism rising out of class conflict. But the movie ends on an even darker note…
3. Parasite has a dark message and a tragic ending.
Somewhere along the line, after it’s opened a commentary about “the help” and “the helped,” Parasite takes a violent turn. The former housekeeper Moon-gwang’s husband, Geun-sae, has been hiding from loan sharks in a secret underground bunker attached to the Park home. Once upon a time, the Park son, Da-song, saw him emerge, thought he was a ghost, and suffered a seizure.
In Parasite, poverty has a smell. It’s a stinking, basement smell. The poor live in basements and secret bunkers, the rich in large, open, luxurious houses with backyards full of grass and garages packed with Mercedes cars. Once it’s pointed out, everyone seems to become sensitive to the smell of poverty. Parasite is, in the end, a fable about social class and social disparity. It’s a deeply tragic, deeply depressing film. I won’t spoil the very end — I’ll leave that for you to ponder, if you’ve watched the movie, or for you to find out, if you haven’t.
The thing is, I’m sure there are some who wish Parasite spoke boldly about socialism or Communist revolt. It could, with a few changes, but the bottom line is it doesn’t. The two poor families are, if anything, even more at odds with each other than either is with the rich family. Eventually, all three families are destroyed. The message is dark, not uplifting, a Hobbesian view of the world. We don’t cooperate — we destroy each other.